Comeback Kids! Fryeburg rallies to beat top-ranked Wells to win West title; headed to state softball finals
UPDATE: Fryeburg Academy rallied from a 5-2 deficit with four runs in the top of the seventh, and Nicole Bennett struck out a Wells player on a 3-2 count with runners at second and third in the bottom of the seventh as the Raiders advanced to the Class B state championship with a 6-5 thriller over the top-ranked Warriors. FA (16-3) will take on Old Town (17-2) at 12:30 p.m. this Saturday at St. Joseph’s College in Standish.
By Wayne E. Rivet
FRYEBURG — When Mackenzie Buzzell was in elementary school, she looked on in awe as Fryeburg Academy went to five state title games, winning three titles.
As a senior, Mackenzie closed out her Raider playing days on the Legion Field with one goal in mind — booking her and her teammates’ trip to another state final.
Number 13 was on fire, cranking a late home run to tie last week’s quarterfinal game against Gray-New Gloucester (as FA rolled past the Patriots, 3-1) and unloading a triple and home run in a 5-4 semifinal victory over Morse.
Just one obstacle remains — Wells — in the West Final scheduled for Tuesday night at St. Joseph’s College in Standish (see related story).
Mackenzie and her senior teammates — pitcher Nicole Bennett and catcher Makayla Cooper (along with super sub Ali Fraize) — were on a mission.
“Our seniors refused to lose,” FA Coach Fred Apt said. “Back in March, I had no idea we would be in this position since we had a lot of young players to work into our program. But, here we are. And those seniors are why we are just one step away. Who would have thunk it?”
Up first were the pesky Patriots. FA had dropped a 3-1 regular season decision to Gray-NG.
This time, the Raiders turned the tables at the friendly confines of the Legion diamond last Thursday.
FA had chances in the first two frames to jump out to a lead, something Coach Apt hoped to do to put some pressure on the Patriots.
Buzzell started FA on the right foot when she hammered a 0-1 pitch over the leftfielder’s head for a lead-off double. But, Patriot ace Ali Martell stayed cool under fire and brought her best stuff. Following a strikeout, Bennett launched a drive to left, but it was caught. Buzzell tried to move up, but was thrown out in a close play at third.
After the Patriots left a runner at second in the top of the second, FA put their first two runners on as Cooper looped a drive into right and Kaylee Emery reached on an error. Again, Martell stomped out the threat with three straight strikeouts.
In the third, Buzzell flared a drive to left for a single with one out, but she was unable to advance on an infield fly and a strikeout.
Gray-NG struck first in the fourth as Hannah Dixon singled to right with one out. Isabelle Brindley drove a ball deep to the shortstop side, but FA’s Tina LeBlanc’s throw to second was late. Mikaela Ryan loaded the bases with a single. On an 0-2 pitch, G-NG’s Jordan Grant tapped a slow roller to second, but the throw home was late as the Patriots took a 1-0 lead.
Bennett put out the fire with a strikeout on a high fastball and a ground ball out, short to first.
Cooper showed why she is an all-conference catcher by making nifty catch of a bunt attempt in the fifth inning. She then fired to first for a double play.
That defensive play seemed to light a spark for the Raiders in the home half of the frame. With two out, Buzzell worked the count to 3-0. If Martell expected Buzzell to take a pitch, she was dead wrong.
Buzzell crushed the pitch to deep center for a game-equalizing homer.
“I looked down at Coach Apt to see if I had the green light to swing. When I saw I could swing, I knew it had to be right there,” Buzzell said. “I took a big cut. The ball was right where I like it — belt high, middle in. As I reached first base, Coach Dutton told me to walk it off.”
LeBlanc followed suit, driving a shot over the rightfielder’s head for a triple. Bennett put the Raiders ahead with a bullet to right for a double. FA added an insurance run when courtesy runner for the pitcher, Ali Fraize, scored on a passed ball.
In the sixth, Bennett wiggled out of a bases-loaded jam. Dixon and Brindley each reached on infield errors. FA caught a break when the Patriots were called for interference on an infield ground ball by Ryan. Grant blooped a single to center, loading the bases. Bennett, however, won the battle by retiring Lydia Espling on a 3-2 pitch, inducing a flyball to third baseman Paige O’Connell. She then snagged a weak line drive off the bat of Chelsea Davis.
FA sophomore Brooke Juneau singled with one out in the bottom of the sixth, but Martell recorded a strikeout and infield out.
Again, G-NG put the Raiders and their fans on the hot seat in the seventh. Alexa Thayer and Cara Waltz each singled, and moved up into scoring position on a ground ball out by Martell.
Bennett never wavered. She closed the door on the Patriots as Dixon lined out to first base and Brindley laced a shot snagged by sophomore second baseman Caroline Condon to end the contest.
Bennett picked up her 15th victory of the season, allowing 10 hits while striking out three.
Martell gave up seven hits, while striking out 10.
Both teams made two errors.
Scary seventh, but FA moves on
Next up were the unknown, upstart Morse Shipbuilders on Saturday in the semis.
The Shipbuilders upset second-ranked Oak Hill, and looked to notch another shocker behind freshman pitcher Dory Kulis.
Early on, the Raiders struggled against the Morse rookie hurler, swinging at a lot of high pitches.
“We struggled a little because she had a little different motion than we have seen,” Coach Apt said.
With Bennett retiring the first six hitters she faced, the Raiders threatened to score first in the second as Brooke Juneau was hit by a pitch with two out and moved to third when Chloe Coen spanked a roller down the first base line into right field. But, Kulis ended the inning with a called strike three.
The inning featured a little controversy when Juneau appeared to have strayed too far from the third base bag and was tagged out on her return. But on appeal, the first base umpire Greg Goan ruled that the Shipbuilder’s third baseman missed on her tag attempt, and Juneau was back safely.
Bennett scattered two hits in the third, keep Morse scoreless.
FA finally erupted in the bottom of the inning as Buzzell triggered the uprising by bouncing a drive through the shortstop hole. She moved up on two passed balls, and scored the game’s first run when Cooper belted a double to right-center with two out. Kulis closed out the inning with an inside strike that caught a Raider hitter looking.
Although Tina LeBlanc is just a sophomore, she clearly played like a veteran with the game on the line. In the fourth with runners at second and third and two out, LeBlanc ranged up the middle, snagged a solid drive and made a strong throw to Emery at first base to nip a Morse hitter by a step — end of inning, and Morse still scoreless.
Fryeburg had a chance to add a run in the fourth as freshman Paige O’Connell singled and ultimately reached third base. But, FA saw its lower half of the order go down on strikes.
FA took control of the game in the fifth as Buzzell rocked a triple and later scored when Bennett crushed a deep drive over the leftfield fence. FA wasn’t done. Cooper lined a shot to deep right for a triple, and Emery darted a hit just inside the leftfield line for a RBI double. Kulis prevented further damage by inducing a short fly ball to left and range up a caught-looking strikeout.
Up 5-0, the Raiders seemingly had their ticket punched to the West Finals. But, some shaky defensive play opened the door to some nail biting in the seventh.
Two infield errors gave Morse new life. Bennett remained poised, and recorded a big strikeout.
A fielder’s choice forced a runner out at third.
Then, it got crazy. A walk loaded the bases, and then the Shipbuilders finally got a clutch hit they had searched all afternoon for — a single up the middle, scoring two.
FA 5, Morse 2.
A bad throw from second to first allowed two more runs to score.
FA 5, Morse 4.
With the game-tying run at second base, Bennett rose to the challenge. A lively fastball on the outside corner was called for strike three, ending Morse’s Cinderella run and advancing the third-seeded Raiders (15-3) to a championship meeting against top-ranked Wells (17-1).
Bennett fired a five-hitter, striking out four. FA, meanwhile, banged out nine hits. Morse hurler Dory Kulis struck out seven.
“I told our kids that although they give up a lot of runs, they also scored a lot of runs this season, so we expected them to battle to the end,” Coach Apt said.
It was a sweet victory, sweeter season for Buzzell and the Raiders.
“It’s been so exciting. Everybody here is so supportive. The team is awesome,” she said. “What I really like about our team is that it keeps battling. We never give up. We’re all in it together. We (the seniors) have talked to our younger players about keeping their composure and not being rattled. We told them that if they make an error or strikeout to brush it off, pick themselves up and keeping playing hard.”